The Retrieval still
The Retrieval, which premiered at SXSW this year, almost slipped under our noses prior to our preview of it a little over a month ago.  It’s a film well deserving of our appreciation and attention. Writer/director Chris Eska (2007’s August Evening) has crafted a very unique and cleverly scripted tale about a young boy named Will, played impressively by newcomer Ashton Sanders, who is sent along with his uncle Marcus (Keston John) by a gang of bounty hunters to retrieve Nate (Tishuan Scott), a wanted freed man. 

It’s an unexplored part of history dealing with slavery, especially on film; a complex and jarring dilemma of slaves who are promised a reward for capturing runaways and fugitive black freed men; these are oppressed slaves manipulated and many times coerced into turning against other slaves for monetary gain and survival.

The Retrieval is set during the Civil War, which serves as more of a backdrop. But it’s very much a character-driven narrative between the youngster Will and the seemingly hard-hearted Nate, a man who has undergone a traumatic separation from his wife, while fleeing up north with intentions of returning, and the loss of a child. Nate is reluctant to travel with the orphan Will and his uncle Marcus, as he should be. Their plan is to con Nate into going back to his hometown by telling him that his brother is sick and waiting to see him. There’s a carefully orchestrated plan, which will lead the bounty hunter gang to Nate’s recapture.

The young Will carries a guilty conscience; his uncle is hardly a father figure, and Will begins to seek the comfort and acceptance of the aloof Nate, more so after his uncle perishes during a Union/Confederate encounter. There are so many elements to the narrative crafted with authenticity and humanity. There’s survival, but there’s also the need for kinship, friendship and familial ties, even if such are the surrogate kind. These elements ultimately forgo survival at the very end, in a sense.

There have been comparisons to Django Unchained made on the web from articles written about the film, which I find perplexing. The Retrieval could not be more distinct in tone, style, and narrative in general.  It’s not an epic, grand scale production, but its quality is very competent, especially for a limited budget. The film is admirably photographed; its set design is striking, and its score is effective, adding to the significance of the film. But it would all be remiss if it weren’t for the nuanced and affecting performances by rather unknowns, especially Tishuan Scott and the young Ashton Sanders, which make the film truly compelling to watch.

Retrieval is more of an observant, quietly affecting tale, but a few of its scenes are suspenseful and pack their share of action; they are not necessarily brutal, although they are definitely believable. The film reeks of authenticity, which makes the viewing of it all the more intriguing.

Chris Eska’s sophomore feature film is a well-researched and relevant drama with instinctual and gripping performances, which should definitely garner some accolades along its festival run (Tishuan Scott won the SXSW Grand Jury Prize for lead actor).  This resonant, gem of a film deserves no less than a “sleeper hit” status, along with theatrical distribution, and I’m particularly hopeful for the latter.